Out of love and respect for the woman they call their “spiritual mother,” four members of the Kuteb tribe in northern Nigeria made a trip last fall to clean and better mark the grave of Johanna Veenstra, the first Christian Reformed Church member to go as a missionary to that African country.
“The plaque on her grave has been missing for at least 23 years,” says Rev. Timothy Palmer, a Christian Reformed World Missions (CRWM) missionary who teaches at the Theological College of Northern Nigeria. “We have eight Kuteb students at the college. They are spiritual descendants of Johanna, and they were disturbed that her plaque was missing.”
Palmer accompanied four of the students to the grave one Saturday. “We took a bit of cement, some water, and some tools, and made a new marker,” says Palmer in a letter he sent to CRWM. “I thought [Veenstra] was one of ‘ours.’ But the Kutebs felt she was one of ‘theirs.’ It is because of her—and God’s grace—that so many of them are Christian.”
The Sudan United Mission from England began the work in Nigeria. Veenstra, a native of Paterson, N.J., joined the British mission in 1919 and arrived in Nigeria two years later. She was engaged primarily in medical work and in preaching and was stationed at Lupwe, near Takum in Taraba State. Eventually she became director of the mission there.
Progress was slow, but she persisted. During her ministry in Lupwe, a number of Kuteb people became Christians. The roots of the Christian Reformed Church of Nigeria (CRCN) are in part the work of God through Veenstra.
She died in Nigeria on Palm Sunday in 1933 and was buried in the community of Vom. Her grave is located near a hospital and car body shop not far from Jos, the scene of recent unrest following a controversial election.
In about 1940 the Christian Reformed Church in North America adopted the northern part of Nigeria as one of its mission fields. Over the decades, missionary work flourished. There are now more than 75,000 CRCN members worshiping in 100 churches. Numerous evangelism sites, preaching centers, and church plants throughout Nigeria are supervised by these churches.
Today, the three Reformed sister churches of the CRCN together are larger than their North American “mother church.”
“We thank God for his church, which spans so many cultures and tribes,” writes Palmer.
In addition to her work in Nigeria, Veenstra is significant for presenting the mission needs of Nigeria to CRC members in North America. Veenstra Seminary, the seminary of the CRCN in Donga, is named after her. In 1926 she wrote a book called Pioneering for Christ in the Sudan about work being done in the area.
Veenstra is quoted in the CRC’s 150th-anniversary commemorative book about working as a missionary in a difficult setting: “You ask me is the outlook then so very bleak? The outlook as viewed by the human eye is well-nigh hopeless. But blessed be God, there is something greater and higher than the outlook. We have the uplook. We see Jesus, crowned in victory. . . . By faith we look up and hear an assuring answer to our question.”
Lorraine Woodward, a CRWM staff member who has studied Veenstra’s career and is writing an essay about her, says, “[Veenstra] was a visionary and, although she had some of the same colonialist attitudes that were so prevalent in her day, she truly loved the people she was working among.”
Even today, people in Nigeria speak of her as their “spiritual mother.”
“She was ahead of her time . . . and her work there, as well as her reports back to the people of the CRCNA, really did set the groundwork for our later work there,” says Woodward. “She literally gave her life to missions.”